March 31, 2011 —
The plant depicted here belongs along the banks of the Delaware River, and in fact, has already emerged and fallen under the scrutiny of my camera lens last week. The other items appearing at top, left, do not, and appeared just upriver from this skunk cabbage.
The river’s borders can seem especially dreary at this time of year, as flooding and receding waters deposit all manner of trash on its banks. Although it might appear that very little is going on along those edges, the deep maroon and chartreuse clusters of skunk cabbage tell a different story.
Just how does skunk cabbage manage such an early appearance?
The plant’s spathe, a mottled shell-like pod, appears first and produces blooms from March to May. Inside the spathe is a spadix, a little knob covered with small yellow flowers. The plant generates heat that is strong enough to melt snow around it. Such thermogenic plants raise their temperature above that of the surrounding air as a secondary process of cellular respiration.
In late spring, tightly rolled leaves begin to emerge. When crushed, they release a strong odor resembling rotten meat, explaining the plant’s name. The scent attracts insects which pollinate the plants as they move among them. The leaves provide shelter and nourishment for various insects and animals as well.
Learn more about this interesting plant in a comprehensive piece by Craig Holdrege of The Nature Institute at www.natureinstitute.org/pub/ic/ic4/skunkcabbage.htm .